Our paths cross again,” I say to him on the phone. I can sense Imran Abbas smiling at the other end of the phone line.
Imran’s path and mine do cross every now and then — at events or at a TV drama shoot in Karachi — but our meetings don’t always culminate in detailed interviews. The last time I tried to coordinate with him, he told me that he wanted to wait to talk to me at a time when he could discuss projects he was excited about.
This is that time. Jee Ve Sohneya Jee (JVSJ), the Punjabi Indian movie in which he plays the male lead, is just about to release. He also recently won rave reviews for his performance in the Green Entertainment drama Tumharay Husn Kay Naam (THKN). There is much to talk about — much for Imran to celebrate.
I can tell that he’s happy when we meet. “It’s a beautiful movie, not typical at all,” he tells Icon about his upcoming film. “It’s spread out over a wide canvas and gives out some very strong messages. Anyone who believes in love needs to see this movie.”
He beams and I am inclined to take Imran for his word. With a career spanning over two decades in the entertainment industry, traversing a long line-up of Pakistani dramas and the occasional tryst in Bollywood, Imran is intuitive about which of his projects may work and which are better forgotten.
Imran Abbas is a poster-boy for Peter Pan syndrome, forever young and always attractive. But behind the calm and composed demeanour beats the heart of a man who has seen it all, and suff ered even more in terms of failures, pain and heartbreak
There have been times when I have encountered him in a desultory mood on a drama set, grumbling his way through a script that he thought would be different, but which ended up being run-of-the-mill. And there have been times like now, when he has talked excitedly about a project that he believes in.
“The director of Jee Ve Sohneya Jee reached out to me back on August 14, 2022 — that’s a date that I wouldn’t forget!” he recalls. “He told me the story and I realised that, in these times, it is very important to convey a message of love to the audience.
“We have lost so many lives because of enmity and yet, on both sides of the border, love remains alive in people’s hearts. We belong to the generation that has to cultivate this love, and if I or my team can be that first raindrop to spread this message, it makes me extremely happy.
“I even said this earlier, back when I was working in India, that I don’t want to be part of any story which spreads hate against any country. I am so happy to be part of a movie that conveys a message of love and peace.”
He continues, “It actually took some time for the shooting schedule to be decided upon and the JVSJ team waited for me to come on board. The director, Deepak Thaper, was insistent that he wanted me to play the main lead. I play a Pakistani boy and he felt that I would bring authenticity to the role.”
But was he proficient in Punjabi or did he have to prepare? “No, I am not very fluent in Punjabi, even though I grew up in Islamabad and studied architecture at NCA [the National College of Arts] in Lahore,” he says. “My friends were actually surprised that I would be acting in a Punjabi movie.
“I had to make sure that my way of speaking was authentic and, for a month, I received online tuition from Karan Gulzar in Chandigarh. There are different Punjabi dialects spoken in different regions, and I had to develop a balance between the versions spoken in Indian and Pakistani Punjab. My director actually told me to just act and speak however I liked, but I wanted to be convincing in the way that I spoke, and not just through my acting.”
Acting opposite him in JVSJ is popular Indian Punjabi actress Simi Chahal. Was he familiar enough with the Indian Punjabi cinematic genre to be aware of Simi’s extensive repertoire?
“Incidentally, I had seen two or three Punjabi movies and all of them had starred Simi,” says Imran. “But, no, I hadn’t known just how hugely popular she was. She’s a great actress and extremely likeable.”
I am curious: how have offers from India come across Imran’s way so often, throughout his career? As soon as the political situation improves, one invariably hears about him working in a cross-border collaboration.
“And when it worsens, I am the first person out,” he quips. “I remember that I had signed on to a movie with director Sanjay Leela Bhansali called Guzarish and just a week and a half before we were to begin shooting, cross-border relations went haywire, and I had to return.”
He continues: “I have always been surprised when offers have come my way from India. I was contacted by director Raj Kumar Santoshi at a time when YouTube didn’t even exist, and our dramas probably made their way across the border via VHS tapes.
“Back then, I didn’t even have a manager but, still, I would be invited by [actor] Akshay Kumar, Yash Raj Productions, [director] Raj Kumar Hirani… sometimes, I ended up working in a film. At other times, things didn’t work out.”
Hit and miss
He adds, with a self-deprecating smile: “A lot of times, I made wrong decisions. I do that, listen to my heart and make really bad professional decisions. Later, I look back upon some of my dramas and films and know that I shouldn’t have done them.”
In a career that spans two decades, there are bound to be a few blunders here and there, I tell him. “Yes, but the ratio between bad and good should have been smaller,” he replies.
I observe that, despite this, he has a huge mass following. I have seen Imran at events, with crowds of fans eagerly thronging him. And on social media’s competitive playing field, he holds first place as Pakistan’s most followed male celebrity.
“It really surprises me,” he says. “There are so many others who are much more active on Instagram than I am. I am not even on Snapchat or TikTok. But if, despite everything, I am still the most followed male in Pakistan after Imran Khan, then I must be doing something right.”
He’s also long been considered one of Pakistani entertainment’s most good-looking men. Does he sometimes wish, though, that the focus would be more on his work than on his looks?
“Yes, definitely,” he says. “This is a common problem — if your looks are somewhat good, you have to work harder to prove yourself. No matter what you do, people will say that your success is because of your looks.”
He continues: “I feel that I have done some really good work, where I really put my heart into the acting. We tend to believe that a good performance is one where you’re crying or banging your head against a wall, or playing an eunuch. In actuality, playing a character realistically is far more difficult!
“Khuda Aur Mohabbat, Noor ul Ain, Mera Naam Yousuf Hai, Yaar-i-Bewafa … these are all dramas that I am proud of.”
There is also, of course, Tumharay Husn Kay Naam. “Yes, it’s one of my most favourite projects to date,” he smiles. “The character played was so similar to me. Like me, he is an architect, a poet. And then, emoting the melancholy within him and the transition from young to old was particularly challenging for me. Also, I got to work with a senior actor such as Salman Shahid, a brilliant co-actress, Saba Qamar, and my director Saqib Khan was amazing. He truly chose every member of the cast very smartly.”
While enacting his character’s younger days, Imran played a college student. It was critiqued that perhaps this was stretching the truth a bit too far. Did he agree?
“I just tried to play the character as believably as possible,” he says, “but yes, some people may have had difficulty accepting me as a college student. I have been working for a very long time, which is why my screen age is often perceived to be quite a lot. People sometimes forget to differentiate between the actor and the character.”
I tell him that he cut a very suave figure when he played an older man in the drama. “Yes, that’s great, my old-age is safe!” he laughs, adding, “But no, not really. On TV, when we play an older character, we just add whitener to our hair. But old age in actuality is an entire package, complete with bent knees and exhaustion.
“Also, it’s risky playing an older man while you’re still in your prime, playing the typical hero. People may decide that you are very believable as an older man and start slotting you as an uncle or an older brother!”
I don’t see that happening, I tell him, considering how he continues to be a popular choice as a romantic hero. “I’d love to play other roles,” he says. “I tried playing a villain, but people didn’t really accept me. I am currently working on a project where I’ll be a full-on action hero.”
Imran seems particularly excited at the change but suddenly remembers how most of his fans see him. “But yes, I like playing the romantic hero with the right girl in front of me. I need a proper reaction from my co-star in order to do a good job, otherwise my expressions just start falling flat. I have historically done some very bad work in such cases!”
He continues: “I was actually making a list of all the top actresses that I have worked with and the list went up to 138! I have romanced so many women, been a dulha [bridegroom] at so many weddings that God has decreed that it’s more than enough, and I don’t need it in real life!” he laughs.
Love … and loss
This is my chance to pry: so there is no love interest in his life right now?
“I do believe in love,” he tells me. “I love animals, plants… but I think that I have come to the point that I don’t need the love of humans. I feel scared of forging new relationships because I don’t want to get hurt when they break. I don’t even want to keep a pet dog, because it will eventually die and then what will I do?”
These feelings, he tells me, have particularly assailed him following the demise of his mother.
“The thing is, when you lose your mother, you realise that there could be no bigger pain in life. All the things that mattered to you in the past become meaningless — break-ups, a marriage ending, a career ending. It all seems so superficial when your mother is no longer there. All those people whose mothers are still there in their lives, need to value them. They don’t realise the wealth that they have.”
I recall how he had completely gone off the grid for some time after his mother’s death. “I wanted to disappear for the rest of my life,” he smiles wryly. “For a year or so, I couldn’t even work.
“Just a year before my mother passed away, I had lost my father. Once my mother was gone, I completely collapsed and no longer had the strength to stand again. I sensed that my sadness was manifesting itself in the form of physical ailments. I felt that I was losing my hair, my face and my body started changing. It’s very important that before pain eats away at you like termites, you control it. Otherwise, it becomes carcinogenic.”
And how did he control his pain? “Namaz,” he says. “Even before, I was very particular about praying five times a day. After my mother passed away, I realised the power of reading the Holy Quran.
“My mother used to get annoyed with me that I would never finish the Holy Quran. Now, for the first time, I read it in totality for her. When you attach yourself to God, the pain that comes your way becomes easier to manage, over time.”
Had his mother watched his dramas and films? “Not my films, which is great,” he grins. “But she did watch my dramas. Dil-i-Muztar was her favourite. Still, in my family, no one is very interested in dramas. My mother was more vocally proud of my sister reading at majalis.
“She certainly never flaunted my acting career and didn’t really pay much heed to the fame that I gained. I have always been treated very normally by my family. She would ask me to pick up my sister’s children if the driver didn’t come or get groceries on the way back home, without realising that it could be tricky for me.”
So you’d be asked to get dahi (yoghurt) on your way back from a shoot, I joke. He nods. “Yes, dahi. Why do mothers always want us to get dahi?”
But I have so much more to ask Imran rather than get involved in a conversation about yoghurt! Did the atmosphere in his home help him in not getting too attached to fame?
“Fame has never attracted me,” he says. “It is a blessing, of course, to be recognised and loved by people. But I know that, in this profession, when you are no longer in your prime, people will forget you. Also, social media has the power to dismiss your years of hard work with a single controversy. It could be a fake video, a comment, anything. It’s why I have trained myself to not be fascinated by fame.
“I come from a humble background and I am so thankful to God for all that I have managed to do. I am happy with all that I have achieved. I want to be able to quit while I am still in my prime.”
Regardless, he is indubitably famous. I recall a recent clip that had gone viral on social media, where he had said in an interview that, in some far-off corner of the world, his face had been utilised by a restaurant as part of the ‘Men’ sign leading to the washroom. You’re also very popular with barbers, I tell him. “Yes, and also tailors!” he chortles.
That’s the sign of true fame, I point out. “Yes, actually, I am very lucky. A true star is one who is loved by the masses. Anywhere I go in Pakistan, even to Gilgit or Babusar Top, little girls and boys come and meet me and know my name. I feel very fortunate.”
And yet, Imran talks about quitting. Aren’t there many more acting roles that you want to do, I ask him.
“Yes, as long as I keep getting work that excites me, I’ll stay on. It could be a new script, a new team, a new industry or more money! If I get offered a huge amount, why wouldn’t I agree to work on a slightly bad project — I’ve done that in the past!” he smiles.
“Right now, though, there are some exciting things in the pipeline. I’ll tell you about them,” he promises.
Perhaps, then, my next interview with Imran won’t take quite as long to coordinate. As long as he stays excited.
Published in Dawn, ICON, February 11th, 2024